OPINION: Time for Congress to admit failureEducation policy decisions should be handed back to states.
By: Joe Graves, Guest columnist
When the Bush administration crafted and the Congress quickly passed the landmark No Child Left Behind legislation back in the early years of the last decade, both sides agreed that such significant changes in the American K-12 educational system would require review after a few years to ensure that the reforms were on course and having the desired effects. Thus, the law was slated for reauthorization by Congress in 2007. (In fact, part of the confusion over this whole issue is the fact that the law is actually the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — abbreviated ESEA — and is typically referred to as such, but ESEA and NCLB are substantially the same thing and will be used interchangeably here.)
Oddly, neither the Congress nor President Bush managed to reauthorize NCLB prior to the conclusion of the Bush administration in January of 2009. This left the Obama Administration and the then heavily Democratic Congress with a wide open field and all the running room they could possibly want to recraft NCLB in their own image. Yet, it is now 2011, ESEA reauthorization is four years overdue, and Congress doesn’t even have the issue on its calendar.
Meanwhile, the obvious (to most educators at least, though virtually nobody asked) problems with NCLB are quickly coming home to roost. Dr. Melody Schopp, South Dakota’s secretary of education, saw the chasm opening in front of South Dakota schools — the imminent declaration that the vast majority of our state’s schools would be in school improvement, i.e. failing — and openly challenged the feds by not taking the next, foolish steps in the accountability standards. In so doing, she risked federal sanctions and put in jeopardy both federal funding and her own professional neck. And in the game of brinksmanship she played with the feds, Washington blinked, granting, after the fact, the flexibility she had already taken.
This was an ingenious and really gutsy move on Dr. Schopp’s part, especially considering the fact that she had been South Dakota’s education secretary less than a few months when she did it. More importantly, it was the right move. South Dakota produces some of the best educated students in the nation, its students regularly scoring in the top ranks of test scores nationally and competing very well even in international comparisons. Arbitrarily declaring hundreds of schools to be “failing” when most states would love to have schools performing this well is both absurd and counterproductive. Doing so would also channel funds and expertise away from those few schools in South Dakota that genuinely do need assistance and sprinkle too little over too many.
So today, we have a No Child Left Behind law which, though it has made some improvements in American education, is collapsing under its own ideological and idealistic weight. So why won’t Congress act? There are at least two possible answers. The first is that they are simply too busy with two wars, a sputtering economy and an insane federal debt. The second is that neither party wants to address it, one fearing to look soft on school accountability and the other fearing the loss of historic levels of federal intervention in schools. Regardless, Congress has essentially abdicated its authority in the matter, leaving it to others to pick up the pieces, in this case federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan and 50 state secretaries of education.
So what’s the solution? It’s been staring Congress in the face since 2001, and truthfully for a lot longer than that. Get the federal government out of education policy. Education is and has, since the founders drafted the United States Constitution, been a state function. Are there problems with state legislatures governing education? Of course. Democracy and federalism are not perfect systems; they are simply the best of any that have been tried. But the answer isn’t a federal takeover. Federal intervention has been pointed to repeatedly over the last 220-plus years as the solution to this or that educational problem. The detractors to that solution have always argued that handing education policy over to the federal government would only make matters worse. The argument, however, was always theoretical since federal intervention on a grand scale had not then been tried with K-12 education.
Today, the experiment is no longer theoretical. It’s been tried and it’s failed. The least Congress could do now is admit that its political nature and demanding agenda simply don’t allow it to do education policy well and hand this function back to where the founders knew it belonged: the states.